Rethinking neurodiverse talent in the workplace

by | Dec 15, 2022

When thinking about the ‘perfect candidate’, a number of desirable skills may automatically spring to mind – time management, communication skills, etc. Through decades of research, a combination of personal and professional abilities has been defined as the attractive traits sought by organisations in their employees.

However, these must-have characteristics were established without consideration of diversity or different approaches to work, and frequently, without considering whether they are true requirements of a specific role. These include behaviours that are often linked to extraversion, for example, with an implicit correlation to effective communication. But that is a very blunt assumption. Are more ‘introverted’ people, based on their behavioural patterns, less skilled in their communication approaches?

We need to rethink these assumptions – particularly when it comes to neurodiversity. In key work competencies, neurodiverse people have been considered ‘less able’ for decades. It is still classed as a disability in equality monitoring. But does neurodiversity always mean someone is disadvantaged in a given role? Let’s explore how neurodiverse people, and generally, neurominorities, offer key strengths through which they can transform organisations into highly successful and thriving environments.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is now defined as a ‘variation in terms of thoughts and behaviours’, one that describes individuals’ neurological development as ‘atypical’. This can often affect how neurodivergent individuals perceive and interact with their surroundings (Lumina Learning, 2022). There are several types of neurodivergence, with the most prevalent being:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – 5% worldwide
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – 1-1.6% worldwide
  • Dyspraxia (DSD) – up to 6% worldwide
  • Dyslexia – up to 10% worldwide

It is difficult to accurately estimate the prevalence of these types of neurodivergence, due to diagnostic differences, access to services, as well as non-disclosure (often associated with stigmatisation). It is estimated that only 12% of people who are neurodivergent are formally diagnosed (Lumina Learning, 2022).

Challenges and values of neurodiversity

Neurodiversities are often viewed strictly from a perspective of their challenges rather than their values. Let’s rethink these:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Individuals with ADHD are traditionally described as facing challenges when it comes to time management, concentration, attention, and self-regulation. Individuals may also struggle with teamwork activities. However, people living with ADHD frequently demonstrate incredible creative thinking, an above average visual-spatial reasoning ability, and are hyper-focused, passionate, and courageous individuals.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): People living with ASD may experience similar challenges to those above such as difficulty with time management, concentration, and coping with more than one task. Individuals also express a strong need for routine and may experience social and communication difficulties. However, those with ASD may have excellent memory ability and often demonstrate higher than average skills in reading, drawing, music, and computation. Additionally, they are likely to be highly innovative thinkers and above average when it comes to detailed observation.

Evaluative biases in traits in the workplace

Thinking back to how we attribute desirable traits and how we define those, we should consider Goldberg’s (1992) Trait Descriptive Adjectives, which comprise the Big Five model (Extraversion/Surgency – Agreeableness – Conscientiousness – Emotional Stability – Intellect/Openness). These are often considered as a basis in measuring personality and behaviour. For example, let’s look at extraversion and the use of adjectives to describe the characteristics of extraverts and introverts, indicated below:

Extraversion: Introversion:
  • Unrestrained
  • Unexcitable
  • Energetic
  • Inhibited
  • Active
  • Untalkative
  • Daring
  • Timid
  • Vigorous
  • Withdrawn
  • Bold
  • Reserved
  • Verbal
  • Bashful
  • Assertive
  • Shy
  • Talkative
  • Quiet

The introversion adjectives are far more negatively described and contain biases in their interpretation. Desson (2017) ran a Social Desirability assessment using those adjectives corresponding to each trait and found that the average social desirability score was 3.7/5.0 for extraversion versus a 2.4/5.0 for introversion. When he used different adjectives for each, below, and ran the Social Desirability assessment once again, the results changed dramatically.

Extraversion: Introversion:
  • Sociable
  • Observing
  • Demonstrative
  • Measured
  • Takes Charge
  • Intimate
  • Expresses Emotions
  • Contains Emotions

The average social desirability score for extraversion was 3.0/5.0 versus a 2.6/5.0 for introversion, a difference of 0.4. This illustrates the biases in language used to describe traits and how mindful we should be against stereotyping, labelling, and using negative connotations that are not necessarily representative.

What does that mean for the workplace?

It means we should look for the value in such traits that can benefit the organisation and rethink our existing biases that view them as obstacles. People with autism have some of the highest rates of unemployment and are particularly disadvantaged. Tailoring our recruitment processes is vital and requires a shift in perception towards emphasising the benefits of neurodiversity. Employers must take a strengths-based view on neurodiversity, viewing it as a diversity rather than a disability.

Some simple steps to reduce biases and discrimination during selection process:

  • Ensuring job specifications and profiles are written to not unnecessarily exclude people
    • e.g. ASD individuals think very literally, so would be unlikely to apply if they do not meet all stated requirements
  • Inclusive language, font, colour, legibility
  • Inclusive selection processes and criteria
    • e.g. meeting the interviewee at the door at a specific time and walking with them to the interview room can take a lot of that pressure away
    • e.g. provide the candidate with a copy of the questions which will be asked ahead of time
  • Making candidates aware of support and adjustments available
  • Training hiring teams to be sensitive towards the needs of all applicants
  • Providing as much information as possible

Things to avoid:

  • Having requirements that are not always necessary but are often included
    • e.g. team player, interpersonal skills
  • Perpetuating entrenched opinions and expectations around personality
    • Being open to traditionally marginalised traits and profiles
    • Being aware of unfounded biases that may creep into the recruitment process
  • Recruiting for past experiences that may not be available to all
    • Focusing more on skills-based assessments
  • Asking broad or ambiguous questions that may be challenging for neurodivergent people e.g. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
Marianna Michailidou is a Delivery Consultant in our Leadership & Talent Consultancy .  If you would like advice on how to embed inclusive practices, underpinned by leadership insight and benchmarking, then contact ltc@gatenbysanderson.com .